I've been driving through the state of Nebraska an average of twice a year since 1981, give or take. Even a cursory knowledge of American geography reminds us that about 6 hours worth of Nebraska sits between Colorado and Iowa to the I-80 driver. Ugh. For a long time I liked to joke that when ever I was driving through Nebraska it was 4 in the morning and 40 below zero on snow-packed roads. Well, enough of that kind of talk. This weekend I had the absolute privilege of journeying to Alliance, Nebraska - and let me be the first to smack my hand to my forehead and realize how wrong I've been about the great state of Nebraska all these years.
Alliance is not quite as little a town as I thought off Nebraska's panhandle, north of I-80 about 100 miles. Not too long ago my buddy Andy, afflicted by the same years of I-80 blues as I, detoured off the beaten path seeking new pavement between Colorado and his Illinois home and made the trip to Alliance to visit Carhenge. I'd forgotten about Carhenge and thought, "...huh... that might be a cool photo outing..." and an idea was born. It fit well within the 4 hour, 300 mile radius I've drawn around my house on google maps, and after all, I love cars, and it's a heck'uva lot easier to make photographs of them immobilized; half-buried in the ground and welded together.
Why not, I thought.
I'm trying to work out the whole sun-up shooting thing. Here's the problem: going to bed the night before and getting up at 2 in the morning is the hard way to do it. I've tried. The worst part is most of the time you don't know where you're going and driving around in the dark trying to figure it out while watching the horizon isn't a low-stress exercise. Putting all the effort into a trip and almost being in position when the sun cracks the horizon - but then missing it by 15 minutes because you just haven't scoped the place out is, to put it mildly, inconvenient.
Instead, I've been leaving the night before and then pulling off and going to sleep as close to the site as I can. Either way you're driving in the dark... either way you're not going to get a good night's sleep, right? I mean, I love my Subaru and everything but let's face it - that award winning interior wasn't designed by the group that did La Quinta. This works out great. You can get out, check out the lay of the land (still in the dark) and get some ideas with plenty of time to head back and get some rest before the magic begins.
Unless of course you're met by the local sheriff at midnight shining a spot light in your rear-view mirror immediately after pulling into the parking lot of a place that closed at 10pm. O.K. I thought... time to make a friend. I pulled forward a bit thinking perhaps I'd inadvertently blocked his path in an otherwise empty gravel lot. Nope... his finely honed hand tuned by years of experience pointed that spotlight perfectly (I mean, perfectly) such that the angle of it off my rear view mirror blinded me no matter what direction I turned. I couldn't get away from it. It was like lasic's. Finally I decided to find out what was going on. I opened the door and stuck a foot out onto the dirt lot expecting the PA system to tell me to please stay in the car (not that I have a lot of experience with this sort of thing...), but nothing. I planted my second foot on the ground and stood up. "Is there a problem officer," I asked. A big man - had to be pushing 275-300 pounds - met with me with a second flashlight to the eyes. "The park closes at 10," he said. "Go ahead and do what you need to do and be on your way."
I explained to him, mindful of my body language, why I was there and did my best to put him at ease. No need for any trouble here, I wasn't aware there were hours. I've found it and now I'll be on my way. "Is there a place I can sleep for a few hours without breaking any laws?" I asked. "Try the truck stop out on the edge of town," he said. I thanked him and headed back the way I came - with him behind me the whole way - happy I'd found my destination so easily but, a little urked my first encounter in Alliance was with the sheriff.
I took the blanket from the back of the Trib, fluffed the pillow I'd brought from home and settled into a pretzel like fetal position in the back seat, mindful to first set the alarm on my iPhone. About 5 hours later I awoke to a brighter sky than I'd anticipated - no sound from the alarm - and was shocked to see it was already 5:30. Sunrise was in a half hour. How'd this happen? I hurried into the front seat, put my shoes on and hurried back toward the park. I was still O.K. time-wise and felt relaxed, but was scanning the streets for the Sheriff's car.
The 120 back on the RZ holds 10 shots. No more, no less. I had a couple of backs in my bag; one loaded with Provia 100, the other with FP4+. The Provia back was on frame 8 and I knew I was going to have to reload quick when the time came. I hate wasting frames so clicked off a few establishing color frames before getting into position for the shot I had in mind. What I'm finding is the ability to visualize your picture is a huge help in getting you started on a shoot. While everyone shoots the gray cars at Carhenge, I was more interested in a sculpture just up the hill called "The Fourd Seasons," comprised of 5 cars representing the growth stages of wheat in Nebraska. The cars are painted various colors and rise from the shortest (most buried) car towards the east to the tallest - two cars welded together end to end and sticking 30+ feet up in the air - to the west. Prior to arrival I didn't know how it was oriented - east to west or north to south - hence the reason for getting there early to plan things out. There was nothing to the east to block the rising sun, only miles and miles of corn. The walk to my shooting position was eased by a brightening sky, the sun minutes away from breaking the horizon. It was a cool, beautiful, quiet morning with a slight breeze and I had the place to myself.
The morning shoot went better than I'd hoped. The light stayed exceptionally nice for a good half hour to 45 minutes as diffused low angle light cut through millions of miles of atmosphere before striking my subjects, illuminating them in the brilliant, golden color you dream of when later looking through your photos and wish you'd been lucky enough to actually get. I looked through the big, bright view finder on the RZ and kept saying wow... it was stunning.
After getting the shots I'd had in mind, I began wandering around the sculptures looking for details glancing towards the sun every so often, unable to believe how nice the light still was. It was getting a little harsher but still diffused enough with a low angle it was worth continuing. Light hit the slightly angled underbellies of the cars and ignited the details we all take for granted on a car - the stuff you never see - the stuff that makes it work - the drive shafts and axels and springs and transmissions, etc. It was a beautiful thing. Most of the cars there were also covered in graffiti, which as I saw I began to understand why the sheriff the night before had been so diligent. But here's the thing: it looked pretty cool. I'm not a fan of defacing public property and I've personally never graffiti'd anything. But there were a few occasions where I found myself appreciating the aesthetic whole of the old, pink or green or yellow or white cars, half-buried in the ground with, what would you call it - local flavor added. Pretty weird, but in a cool, artsy way.
One car really caught my eye - covered in graffiti with plenty of sunflowers bursting up at its base. But the light was all wrong - it was a sunset shot. But what a shot... quite possibly worth sticking around Alliance for the day to be back in about 12 hours... I went through a couple rolls of Provia that morning then switched to FP4+ and headed down to the gray cars. It was the lack of any specular highlights (all the cars are covered in a flat, gray paint) that really attracted me.
At one point the silence was broken by an unkempt motorcycle muffler rumbling into the parking lot. To my amazement it continued up the path right up to the base of the sculpture, parking inside the main ring. This made photo making a bit challenging (which is probably why he did it). The combination of the guy and his bike was a photo in itself. It's tough to describe in a story that's supposed to be about something else (what is my point, anyway?) - but suffice it to say I briefly thought about approaching him to ask if I could take his picture but something wasn't quite right. He was a pretty scary looking dude, even by biker standards. It turns out later a few german tourists had dropped in and were making photos of each other in the middle of the sculpture. The guy on the bike fired it up and drove right through their group - as if to make a point, then roared off. Nice, I thought. Glad I don't have an image of him to remind me what a jerk he was.
After a suitable breakfast at the Homestead Diner the day was spent wandering around between Alliance, and the town of Hay Springs to the north where I ripped my shorts hopping the pool fence to get some shots. I picked up a couple of plums and an unripe pear from the grocery store for lunch before heading back to Alliance. It was hot and I was sleepy from a restless night in the Subaru so wanted to find a spot and rest a bit before sunset. That's when the real Alliance began to emerge. I had the good fortune to stumble across the brand new Knight Museum. The Knight Museum is a treasure of information about the whole Sandhills area of western Nebraska. First class, state of the art exhibits dot the contemporary, stylish building on the outskirts of another of Alliances treasures, Central Park. I walked through the museum and enjoyed absorbing some of the history, then found my way to the fountain in Central Park and got out my camp chair for a journal entry and a cigar.
After a bit I noticed a number of cars pulling up with people getting out and walking by. I wondered if there was something going on and said hello to a few people as they passed. One gentleman with his wife walked by and bid me a good afternoon. "There's a bar-b-que up at the high school put on by the football team if you're interested," he said. I thanked him and thought briefly about attending, but looked at my watch then went to get in the car and head back out to shoot.
"Don't be an idiot," I said to myself. "This is what you're here to do." I got out of the car, covered my gear, locked the car and hoped for the best - reminding myself it's all insured. I thought about bringing a camera but decided I just wanted to eat. The high school was only 2 blocks away and what an enormous mistake it would have been to have not gone. $5 bought a plate of baked beans, a hamburger, a bag of chips, a brownie and a coke - and - a seat in the stands to watch the Bulldogs practice, complete with cheerleaders and everything. I think the entire town was there - I felt like an extra in Friday Night Lights. Smoke surrounded the guys grilling burgers, "Love Shack" played over the PA system on the field, young boys in Wrangler jeans called me sir and people smiled, looked me in the eye and said hello. As if that weren't enough, all of it was happening in absolutely gorgeous late afternoon light. I ate, relaxed and when it was time to leave gave my seat to an elderly woman with a walker looking for an easy place to rest with her family.
Fully satisfied and still relaxed I headed back to Carhenge and enjoyed a blissful evening of still more gorgeous light as the shot I'd envisioned in the morning erupted into stunning foreground detail and color at last light. Back in town a strawberry milkshake at Zesto's as the last of the evening light reflected in the funky buildings old, glass block windows was a peaceful end to a wonderful day. The taint of my first encounter with the local sheriff the night before had been replaced with the Saturday evening bliss of summer in small town America in one of the many "small towns" that make up our great country.
Sometimes I wish the whole country were more like Alliance, Nebraska. I wish the law makers and lobbyists from Washington, the "trend setters" and culture-altering movers and shakers from New York and California - that seem to have so much influence over how the rest of us (as in vast majority) in the "flyover states" live our lives - and anyone else who's had a hand in steering our great country towards the edge of the cultural cliff we're teetering on, would visit a town like Alliance, Nebraska. I think they'd come away with an authentic warmth that would make them stop and think. About what America is really all about and how, if things don't change, our one time status as "the greatest country in the world" will be an epitaph. Alliance Nebraska is indeed home of, as it says on their license plates, "The good life."
(real photos to follow, please check back)
Keywords: Alliance Bulldogs, Alliance Nebraska, Carhenge, Central Park, Knight Museum, Mamiya RZ67, Subaru B9 Tribeca, The Fountain, Zesto's Ice Cream, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, medium format film, road tripping, small town America
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